Culture and Community Development: Tough Questions, Creative Answers

By Caron Atlas

What are the tough questions that public officials—mayors, planning commissioners and economic development experts—and private developers should address to incorporate issues of cultural planning in community development programs/projects? And what are the questions artists and arts organizations need to consider related to their roles in development?

I work at the intersection of culture and community development but I have as many questions as answers. How can development extend beyond commercial values to include social, economic and cultural values such as diversity, participatory democracy and social justice? What would it look like if development honored the multi-layered identities of communities, and involved them in determining their own fate? And what if in doing this they were able to incorporate creative methodologies from the arts?

I have learned over the years that we don’t ask enough questions. And when questions do get asked, too often only one group of stakeholders gets to ask and answer them. What would it look like if a diverse group of people offered questions that they would like considered? To find out, I sent a call for tough questions to artists, arts administrators, educators, activists, policymakers and funders.

To get them started I posed some questions of my own that have grown out of many years of work in urban and rural contexts: What are the cultural impacts of development and the role of artists in gentrification? How do issues of race, class and power play out in this work? What opportunities are available for cross-sector collaboration and training? Within a week, eighteen people sent back a rich collection of questions.

Community Assets and Values

Appalshop Roadside Theater Director Dudley Cocke’s question reflects the importance of identifying community assets:

  • Is there an inventory, based on interviews with the people currently living there, of the natural and cultural assets of the area to be developed? How are these natural and cultural assets related? How should the public, elected officials and developers assign value to such tangible and intangible assets?

Created in 1969 as part of the War on Poverty, Appalshop, an Appalachian cultural center, continues to address economic inequities and community development. Development issues include the legacy of strip mining and the growing impact of prison development, but they also include visions for arts, media and homegrown creative industries that draw on the richness of the local Appalachian culture and place.

Down the road, Robert Gipe and his Southeast Community College students are mapping the assets of Harlan County through oral history, theater and photography. They are asking:

  • Historically, how has cultural activity helped sustain communities? What kinds of culture/artistic activity would be hardest for your community to do without?

In Seattle, Tommer Peterson is concerned about history as well. The museum where he works, the Wing Luke Asian Museum, engages Asian Pacific-American communities and the public in exploring issues related to the culture, art and history of Asian Pacific Americans. He asks

  • How do we value and respond to the history of a place (particularly if that history is unpleasant or challenging) while designing ways to improve it for its present and future uses?

Wing Luke’s practice of placing stories and oral histories at the center of their exhibitions, and its transformation of a deteriorating old hotel in the heart of its Chinatown-International District neighborhood into a new museum, illustrates its own response to this question.

Selma Jackson, owner of 4W Circle, a retail incubator in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, asks a related question:

  • How can we have new development in communities and not discard the existing programs that have organically created the existing community?

She is a member of the Concerned Citizens Coalition, a group that came together to respond to the BAM Local Development Corporation’s cultural district and to develop an inclusive vision for culture and development in the neighborhood.

Inclusion, Participation, Partnerships and Power

Selma Jackson continues:

  • How can the process of change include all stakeholders at the table for planning?

Maurine Knighton of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone interrogates the question by asking:

  • How is ‘stakeholder’ defined? How does one determine which stakeholders should be included in a development project? When is the appropriate time to extend the invitation?

Others raise questions about what makes for meaningful inclusion and participation. Lori Pourier, executive director of the First People’s Fund in Rapid City South Dakota, asks:

  • How does a city planning office incorporate diverse cultures (including the arts) historically rooted within their communities in a meaningful and respectful manner?

Referring to a “subtle matrix of overlapping values in communities,” Wing Luke’s Peterson wonders:

  • Will planners ever learn that including voices of community members in their work means taking them on as equal partners and sharing control?

Judi Jennings, director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women, suggests that we “get beyond the kind of platitudes that we so often hear about relationships.” Arts and museum management consultant Kinshasa Holman Conwill draws on her experience in the development of cultural plans to address the issue of meaningful participation. She offers four challenging questions related to strategy:

  • What strategies work to bring parties (cultural, community, public, private) to the table, keep them there and honor and incorporate the ideas of all involved? What are the incentives for mutually beneficial relationships among arts, culture, community and the variables of commercial development? What is the role of public sector officials in creating policies that encourage such mutuality? How do we transform the ‘art of the deal’ from a zero-sum game to a set of real partnerships?

Who Defines Culture?

One of the tough challenges community and cultural development consultant Tom Borrup experiences is:

  • How to get people in the community-building professions to think beyond western institutionalized art when you say the word ‘culture’ or ‘art’?

Debora Kodish, director of PTP asks:

  • How are ‘culture,’ ‘artists’ and ‘development’ defined? Whose culture(s) count/are counted? Who is recognized as an artist? Whose development? Who benefits and who risks in a neighborhood where development is happening? How can development be framed so that truly sustainable, plural, multiple forms of cultural diversity, like biodiversity, are in the mix, valued, seen as critical to community health and long-term viability?

Sociologist Hector Berthier Castillo of the National University of Mexico (UNAM) relates this challenge to Mexico when he quotes Mexican author Nestor Garcia Conclini: “The cultural wealth that is appreciated is that of dominant groups: the writings of the peasants, works of poor youngsters are not filed, nor do their humble dwellings receive the attention given to historic sites.” Castillo questions the “lofty heights” of the social sciences and academia, finding it essential that “the knowledge acquired and generated by research be directly used to the solution of specific problems.” He does this through the Circo Volador (Flying Circus) cultural center, an applied sociology project that focuses on youth creation through rock music, murals, graffiti, radio and capoeira in a tough Mexico City neighborhood. For him, “the real challenge is to convince, negotiate, agree and defend the project from the corresponding authorities. Today we continue sitting in officials’ rooms, avoiding being absorbed.”

The Philadelphia Folklore Project (PFP) encounters this challenge as they document, support and present Philadelphia-area folk arts and culture. They believe “that the quality of urban life is directly related to the persistence, diversity and vitality of our vernacular folk cultures.” PTP has been tracking some of the places where local communities fight gentrification and urban removal. Their new video, I Choose to Stay Here, produced in collaboration with the Community Leadership Institute, follows a group of people fighting city hall for the right to define and preserve viable communities.

Development, Culture and Resources

Amalia Anderson, an indigenous lawyer and activist working with League of Rural Voters Main Street Project, frames her questions around the impact of development on culture.

  • How does dispossession and displacement from lands/neighborhoods affect the cultural identity of people of color? How can we use the arts to begin to connect local displacement and gentrification issues to a larger, more global conversation about systemic and historical nature of dispossession…and loss of land? How can the arts be used as a tool central to the healing process for those communities who have been ‘devalued’ through a process of economic development?

Two participants involved in policymaking raise questions about the impact of culture on development. Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Kentucky, asks:

  • How do I evaluate cultural work? If I build forty units of housing for low-income families, I have plenty of ways to evaluate the good it does for the community from economic impact to public safety. How do I measure the value of cultural activity so I can justify the investment of precious public funds?

Kathie deNobriga, a member of the City Council of Pine Lake, Georgia, asks:

  • As an elected official, I’d have to answer a basic question: How do you reconcile using tax money (from the public) on something that is apparently used by only a small number of people?

Pat Cruz, executive director of Aaron Davis Hall, and Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, raise questions related to resources. Cruz asks:

  • What are the resources, financial and human, that community-based cultural organizations need to affect sustained and stabilizing community development?

For Tompkins:

  • How can ‘popular’ cultural and artistic projects—popular meaning more economically viable and less risky artistically—be used to subsidize less popular, less economically viable and more challenging artwork?

Positive Social Change or Gentrification?

Community development consultant Millard “Mitty” Owens asks:

  • When will we recognize the full value of these elements throughout the development process? Culture and creativity should be integrated from the outset, guiding the process—to facilitate widespread interest and active engagement from diverse constituencies (particularly those typically alienated from such processes), to help us break out of our traditional planning boxes and envision something more creative and unconventional that might better address the community’s needs….And we should recognize the lasting social contribution of a cultural component to a development project, such as planning a local museum or cultural center that promotes racial or class understanding in the midst of a rapidly diversifying neighborhood, a ‘graffiti wall’ in a commercial strip rife with youth ‘tagging’ on local businesses; a local theater troupe that addresses community problems and programs promoting respect and cultural preservation.

Urban Bush Women Artistic Director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar asks a question on behalf of artists in the community:

  • Given that an economically diverse neighborhood is a common goal and given that artists are an important part of the lifeblood of a community, many communities, and Brooklyn in particular, are in danger of losing the ability for artists to find affordable housing. How will you address this issue?

Selma Jackson adds:

  • If an area is ‘discovered’ by artists, history tells us that development will follow. How can we create ownership for artists and community organizations when they move into areas, so that the constant displacement of community pioneers is curtailed?

Brad Lander of Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED) in Brooklyn asks:

  • What is the line between arts-led community development and arts-led gentrification?

Pregones Theater faces this question as it develops its new theater in the South Bronx by engaging its community in a discussion about what can be done to prevent the displacement of neighborhood residents. Tom Borrup considers “how real estate developers and artists share a lot of skills and methodologies, like seeing possibility in what others have discarded and being able to work with raw materials to create meaning and value that wasn’t there.” For him the question could be:

  • How are artists and real estate developers alike? And, is it fair that they’re lumped together in the category of agents of gentrification?

Amalia Anderson asks about the limits of artist’s ability to be a force for positive change:

  • How does the impact of the global financial structure, and the role of technology in globalization, limit the artist’s ability to be an agent of change? Or does it?

To that I would add another question:

  • How do you deal with the possible contradiction between the artist’s role as social critic with the one of being an engine of development? What are the tensions between the art of resistance and community building?

Continuing the Dialogue

I close with a comment from Kinshasha Holman Conwill about our ability to learn tough lessons as well as to ask tough questions:

  • What do we do when things don’t work out, despite truly good faith efforts, to reduce tensions, repair relationships and carry lessons forward?

If anything can be learned by the thoughtful questions and experiences shared by my colleagues, it is the value of asking questions and learning from one another throughout the development process. Their rich and enthusiastic responses demonstrate that there is no reason to ask questions and learn alone. In fact, the challenges and creativity of joining art, culture and development call out for diverse perspectives and experiences, and multiple forms of knowledge.

Caron Atlas is a Brooklyn NY-based consultant working to strengthen connections between art and culture, policymaking and social change. She would like to acknowledge the help of Kinshasha Holman Conwill in conceptualizing this piece and in writing the call for questions.

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